It is an iconic moment in literature, told by one of the great masters.
The boys at Bumble the Beadle’s parish workhouse live on three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays. Boys, as Charles Dickens reminds us, have excellent appetites, and have suffered slow starvation for three months.
And just as their plight becomes almost impossible for us to bear, he throws in a thumbnail sketch of the boy who wasn’t used to that sort of thing, the erstwhile son of a cook-shop owner, tall for his age with a ‘wild, hungry eye’, who “hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age.”
Something terrible will happen, the boys are convinced, unless the cook-shop owner’s son can be appeased.
It is only under these extreme circumstances that the boys risk a consequence which was much abroad in Victorian times: the disapprobation of their elders.
We know the rest. Oliver is chosen to ask for more, and incurs the heaviest brand of Victorian disapproval possible.
It was in early nineteenth century Britain that the middle classes began to spread like a rash.
And it was all the fault of corn; or rather a league set up against a fixed price for grain grown on the land of the aristocracy.
Merchants could see that corn should not be sold at a fixed price, simply to line the pockets of the landowners. And they united, a new mercantile and professional class, prosperous and dismissive of those who got where they got through inheritance.
This new breed valued thrift and sobriety, hard work and self-sufficiency. They despised the aristocracy for their idleness, the poor for their drunkenness.
Disapprobation was part of the wallpaper.
It was, however, never harsher than under the tutelage of Victoria herself, as a celebrated spa town found to its cost. The Empress’s disapprobation was not centred around mores; rather around her own highly individual set of values.
At the tender age of 11, Victoria was honoured by the city. A whole park was to be named after the short, stout future monarch. She duly attended the opening ceremony, where a freak gust of wind blew up her skirt and revealed a stocky pair of royal pins.
At which some impertinent bystander commented that she had fat legs.
The city of Bath, darling of Regency aristocracy, would have done well to muffle the said bystander by pulling his top hat down over his face. For the words sounded a death knell for any form of royal patronage during the interminable Victorian era.
Victoria never visited Bath again. It is said that when she was compelled to travel the train line through the city, it never stopped, but the men were ordered to shovel more coal into the belly of the iron horse to propel it far from the scene of such a heinous jibe.
She had many such aversions, as those who chose to lampoon her reign found out: WS Gilbert never got his knighthood for all those acerbic lyrics, and Rudyard Kipling suffered a similar fate.
Such crippling disapproval might have disappeared with the dawn of a new century, had not its carrier-pigeons gone from strength to strength.
The middle classes were here to stay.
The twentieth century has perpetuated and empowered those in the middle, here in the UK. A working class chap could get to Oxbridge, and indeed to Westminster, as Harold Wilson and Ted Heath demonstrated.
But did the disapprobation gather pace too, or disappear into the ether?
Rather than answer that, I’ll refer you to a small Darkest Peruvian bear.
Paddington Bear is the most perfect, gentle jest you could ever find, created by author, Michael Bond.
When the Brown family of Windsor Gardens, Middle England, find him on Paddington Station, he captures their hearts and he comes home to live with them.
It appears he got there by stowing away on a big cruise ship and surviving the whole voyage on jars of marmalade.
No-one ever questions how Paddington can talk, and why he acts for all intents and purposes like an endearing little man.
But who cares, when the conceit is carried out with such perfect, middle class affability?
Disapprobation is key: because there’s northing funnier than a small bear bumbling around challenging the mores of the bourgoisie. On a shopping trip he stumbles into a London department store window and attracts a wide crowd of passers-by by ruining an elaborate display.
During a night out to the theatre, he tries to rescue the heroine and ends up playing a key part on stage. And when he takes to art, he wins a prize for Mr Brown with his daubings. He has his own sign of disapproval: the Paddington Hard Stare.
He generally ends up loosening up a stuffy establishment. And those whose worlds are turned upside down by the little bear end up the better for it.
Disapprobation was harsh when our society was polarised: rich and poor, educated and uneducated, idle and industrious.
But as time has gone on – just perhaps – might we have learnt to take our values just a little less seriously?
Image courtesy of paddingtonbear.com
30 thoughts on “Disapprobation and Paddington Hard Stares”
We still have a ” look down their narrow pointed nose patrician class” in the USA. The Gov. of Florida has cut a mere $750,000 that funded non profit food banks to distribute food which they have acquired at no cost to the state. That food went to 800,000 people twice a week. He has made it law that food stamp recipients will have benefits terminated if test positive for drugs. Yeah, it is their own fault to be the poorest and neediest of society. Apparently they don’t deserve a bit of consideration even though services can be provided so inexpensively. Health care will be cut to children of poor families and some elderly too. You would think a newly flourishing bourgeois would be sensitive to those ranks from which they rose. No wonder Lenin and Marx condemned them as just as unholy as the aristocrats. “All power to the democracy of Workers !”
Hear hear, Carl; I wonder why that rise in circumstances is so often accompanied by a blinkered attitude?
Wonder if Paddington Bear ever met Winnie-The-Pooh . . . and, if so, did PB convince WTP to swap some honey for some marmelade on his scones at tea?
Loved hearing about Victoria’s aversion to Bath (and public bathing) due to a flippant remark from someone in the crowd. Funny how even Aristocratic and Regal Egos worry about how they are perceived by others. 😉
I guess it’s easy to take pot -shots at a monarch, forgetting they’re human: but being a monarch the consequences of her disapproval were far reaching, Nancy…
Paddington Bear loved marmalade and so do I. It is rather odd that you have mentioned marmalade, tonight of all nights – due to an incident at work today I have been considering the making of marmalade as a metaphor for life: it is a recipe for making the bitter things in life palatable.
Do you remember those marvellous cartoons of the Paddington Bear stories? With a wonderful voice over / story teller.
That metaphor is lovely Pseu 🙂 As Julie trilled, a spoonful of sugar…
I use to love the animated series. Six pm, BBC1, wasn’t it?
We love Paddington in our house. My husband actually did a cross stitch picture of him for our son when he was small. So much fun and so much humor.
An American Paddington fan! I wasn’t sure how far the little bear had travelled! He is such a gentle soul, and so funny-I’m reading him to my seven year old son at the moment….
I’m not surprised old Vicky took umbrage, I’d also stay away from anywhere my legs had been called fat.
It wasn’ very nice , was it? Or very clever. Bath must have suffered from that demotion.
how to brew a story? this was fun.
Glad you enjoyed it, Doc 🙂
I don’t think we have many values left – none that anyone wants to fight for, anyway.
I think you may be right 🙂
Or, at the very least, question them, Kate. Paddington was clearly a great vehicle for conveying how a stranger coming into the throng can turn things on their head . Poor Queen Victoria – at least Prince Albert must’ve loved her fat legs…
Lovely way to look at the whole values thing, BB. Small furry strangers seem to do exceptionally well :-D. And yes, Victoria’s was definitely a love match, wasn’t it?
Paddington is so gently funny! There’s little more fearful than a Hard Stare.
People seem to want to think that class is no longer an issue- we’re all middle class apparently- and that anyone struggling in poverty is doing so becasue they are feckless or somehow at fault. There’s no value placed on supporting those in need; but then that’s maybe a return to older values too?
What goes around comes around, Speccy…the same old attitudes seem to prevail. It’s frustrating…
I love Paddington (and share his taste for marmalade)! I used to want to dress like him when I was little. Queen Vic certainly overreacted to the, admittedly rude, comment. Poor Bath! Still, one should never mock a lady’s gams.
No 😀 A piece of advice many gentlemen out there would do well to remember…
I can’t help but wonder how Queen Victoria would have fared in today’s social climate?
We love Paddington Bear here across the pond as well. Our U.S. Congress could use him right now and his hard stare might just shake them up a bit.
Interesting question about Queen Victoria….these days our queen is very visible and hard working, so no one minds the tiny amount that’s tacked onto our taxes. A disapproving queen might not inspire quite such generosity….
I love your posts, Kate, they are so very interesting… This post made me consider if we will ever be rid of poverty after all there is ‘deserved’ poverty and ‘undeserved’ poverty depending on through whose eyes the poor are seen.
That is such a brilliant way of putting it, Adeeyoyo. Giving unconditionally is a very difficult thing for us to do indeed, it seems…
I love Paddington although I have not seen the comics strips. America suffers from the ‘rugged individual’ fairytale that we have seen in so many stories of athletes and business people. “If he or she made it why can’t others.”
Hi 🙂 Lovely to have you over; your site looks fabulous right now, bedecked as it is in roses! The ‘rugged individual’ story: so hard when someone raises the bar to impossible heights.To burst those modern-fairy-tale bubbles is hard indeed.
paddington comic-strip: an oldie but revered amongst forty-somethingths across the uk:
Adore Paddington, Kate. When I was a girl (now 38) my best friend had the most lovely Paddington…I was very jealous. As for the middle class, in the States, ours is disappearing a bit more every year. It shall be interesting to see what shakes out in the next election ~
It certainly will, Angela…and it’s never too late to own a Paddington. I coveted other people’s Paddingtons too, and may just have to go and procure one now…
Presumably Victoria would have set off from Paddington on her way to Bath?
Also, there’s a statue of Paddington at Paddington, which is just like the picture that you put at the top of this post.
Hi Miff, have you popped out from the birthday celebrations? Now there’s a connection I had not thought of!
Thanks for the link, I ‘m off to take a look….